March 20, 2019

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Can Cuba Baseball Still Be Great When Many of Its Stars Have Left?

Can Cuba Baseball Still Be Great When Many of Its Stars Have Left?
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When they won the National Series last season, the Granma Stallions were rewarded with a week at an all-inclusive resort and rice cookers; as a free agent in November 2016, Yoenis Cespedes, who grew up playing in Granma Province, signed a four-year, $110 million contract with the Mets.

Cuba’s baseball federation and Major League Baseball announced an agreement on Dec. 19 to legalize and streamline the transfer of professional baseball players to the United States and Canada in an effort to end the smuggling of athletes and to bring order to the byzantine paths players from the island must take to clubs. The agreement, however, must be approved by the American government because of the longstanding trade embargo against Cuba, and the Trump administration has so far given mixed signals about it.

A more systematic recruitment could better regulate the departures of Cuba’s best players, which have left the country’s national team foundering. In July, Cuba came home without a gold medal from the Central American and Caribbean Games for the first time since 1982.

Major league games are broadcast in Cuba. Until a few years ago, when Cubans stepped up to the plate, censors edited them out, acknowledging a reality everybody knew was too painful.

Though the strongest players have already been gleaned, agents know the Cuban system can still generate quality players, and so have adapted their approach to woo younger players, Cuban baseball officials said.

Yovani Aragón, Cuba’s national baseball commissioner, said boys as young as 13 were being lured away to sign as free agents in major and minor leagues in other countries, including South Korea, Panama, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. This puts them in a better position to eventually sign with Major League Baseball.

“Traffickers now make contact with the parents,” he said. “They are taking away not just players but entire families.”



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